One Hundred Ports: Volume growth wanes as post-pandemic boom fades
Container ports may finally have gained some respite from chronic congestion, but they are already facing up to the new challenge of demand growth
China’s contribution masked an otherwise flat global throughput performance during 2022, a year that was fraught with the reverberations of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and profound economic consequences
THE post-pandemic boom that helped the global container port sector recoup Covid-induced volume losses, started to fade in 2022.
For the world’s container ports, this meant a return to the days of moderate demand growth — a trend that had become a firm fixture for the industry pre-Covid.
The 100 ports featured in our latest rankings count achieved combined volume growth of 1.5% in 2022, with total liftings stacking up to 685.8m teu.
This compared to the 7.2% increase reported in 2021, making it the weakest growth level — the post-Covid year aside — seen by the world’s largest container ports since the fallout of the global financial crisis back in 2009.
China’s strong showing and resilient Middle East economies provided at least some relief to 2022’s otherwise subdued growth environment, helping offset the demand shortfall from a post-pandemic hangover — one felt most notably in Europe and across the Americas.
Of course, the plus point of a more moderate demand picture was that it granted ports — and container shipping in general — much-needed respite from the chronic congestion that had choked supply chains throughout 2021 and a large chunk of 2022.
With one challenge over, however, another began. Indeed, the operational landscape for the world’s top container ports did not get any easier in 2022.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine at the start of the year triggered a massive shock to a global economy still reeling from the effects of the worst pandemic in a century.
Energy and food prices skyrocketed amid a supply squeeze, doing little to lift the lid on inflationary pressure or quell sky-high interest rates in the Western world.
Consumers have been hit hard — and so too has the demand for consumer goods.
For the elite container ports, the turmoil in Eastern Europe further dampened an already bleak demand setting and quashed any hopes of a quick return to pre-pandemic norms.
Considering the sheer strength of the current economic headwinds, the latest forecasts — at the time of writing — by industry analysts Drewry indicate that the global container port sector is set to post a sluggish growth figure of around the 1% range for 2023.
As for 2022, perhaps the least surprising result was that Shanghai, China’s container port behemoth, once again crowned the Lloyd's List rankings, chalking up its 13th consecutive year at the top of the tree.
A sight to behold, Shanghai’s colossal complex moved 47.3m teu during 2022, edging ever closer to the quite remarkable 50m teu mark, as it continued to carve out a near unassailable position.
Despite fairly subdued volume growth of just 0.6% — having taken a significant hit by Covid-induced lockdowns in early 2022 — Shanghai managed to claw back traffic in the second half of the year to extend its lead over nearest rival Singapore. The gap between the pair now stands at more than 10m teu.
However, despite posting a drop of 0.5% in throughput, second-placed Singapore did weather the dual storm of global supply chain disruption and the macroeconomic uncertainties better than most of its regional peers and competitors — most notably Port Klang, Tanjung Pelepas, Busan and Hong Kong.
Unmoved in third place is China's second-largest box facility, Ningbo-Zhoushan, which was again not spared the country’s draconian lockdown measures.
Yet Shanghai’s loss was the dual port of Ningbo-Zhoushan's gain, as cargoes shifted to its terminals during the closure of the former more than made up for its respective Covid lockdowns.
A throughput jump of 7.3% at Ningbo-Zhoushan to a total of 33.3m teu made a significant dent in the gap on Singapore.
Although volumes have flattered to deceive during the initial months of 2023, port officials are still unmoved in their target of surpassing 40m teu come 2027 — an achievement that could see the Chinese port breathing heavily down Singapore's neck before long.
Ensuring the top four remained unchanged once more came a steady performance from southeast China's major manufacturing, tech and export hub, Shenzhen.
Growth of 4.4% at Hong Kong’s northerly neighbour came in the face of recurring Covid outbreaks of its own, which continued to hamper port operations.
Further north, Qingdao's rise to prominence continued apace, claiming the accolade as the fastest-growing top 10 port, adding no fewer than 28 new service routes in 2022 as volumes increased more than 8%.
Qingdao can now class itself as one of the world's top five container ports, having gatecrashed the upper echelons of our listing at the expense of Chinese compatriot Guangzhou. This represented the only ranking change in the top 10.
At the tail end of the top 10, only Tianjin (eighth) bettered its 2021 total, making ground on Busan (seventh) in the process, while Covid policies did little to improve Hong Kong's credentials as volumes dropped by more than a 1m teu.
Once the world's largest port in the late 1980s, the danger of Hong Kong slipping out of the top 10 in the coming years is looking increasingly like a reality.
Rotterdam, propping up the top 10, was one of several European majors in the north of the continent that suffered heavily from the loss of Russian-bound cargoes following sanctions.
China's dominance of the container port sector continues to show little sign of diminishing any time soon.
Despite one of the country's entries, Zhuhai, losing its rankings status, Chinese facilities still account for as many as 24 rungs on the Lloyd's List ladder — and, more significantly, seven remain in the top 10.
There is also a host of rapidly expanding smaller Chinese ports, including Yangpu, Zhanjiang and Weihai, which could all make their debut in the Top 100 Ports rankings before long.
With a total volume share of around 40% of the total throughput handled by the top 100, China's contribution provided an additional 11.4m teu against its 2021 input — a 4.4% rise in total, as the main attributor to the slim growth figure achieved by the combined top 100 effort.
Whether by mistake or design, however, volumes at certain Chinese ports appeared to be inflated.
In early 2023, a report published by Linerlytica highlighted how some Chinese ports' volumes contained an element of 'throughput inflation', as domestic growth did not match up with throughput numbers reported in the rest of the world.
This, according to Linerlytica, can be achieved through several mechanisms that count towards additional box liftings, often used to fabricate throughput results to mask underlying terminal performances, including barge activity and empty container movements between terminals.
Either way, a number of Chinese ports posted some serious growth figures domestically.
Indeed, the title for the fastest-growing elite container port in 2022 went to Yangtze River Delta facility Jiaxing, clocking up growth above 28% as its efforts to develop sea-river transport continued to provide dividends.
Jiaxing was one of five Chinese ports to hit double-digit percentile growth for 2022, alongside Dalian, Qinzhou, Taicang and Yantai. Only two — Hong Kong and Yingkou — failed to improve on the previous year's tally.
Yet even accounting for number massaging, China's volume growth is on course to brake sharply in 2023.
Global recession risks, sustained high inflation, and growing competition from rival manufacturing hubs in Southeast Asia, are all weighing in on the near-term prospects for the Chinese export market, say analysts.
There are also geopolitical uncertainties to contend with — most notably, China's own souring relations with the US, threatening ties with a crucial trade partner while reigniting talk of protectionism and anti-globalisation. These are concepts that do little to promote the country's containerised trade.
Asia, excluding China
Asian ports outside of China, making up the largest share of individual ranking entries by region — 27 in total — saw combined volumes fall marginally in 2022 on their year-ago level, by 0.4%.
This was in stark contrast to the 7% growth figure posted the previous year.
With the post-Covid bounce firmly in the past, the region's ports were feeling the bite of ensuing high inflation and its impact on consumer demand for goods, especially from the US and Europe, while the impact of Russia's invasion on its own economies hit close to home.
All five of the region's largest ports — Singapore, Busan, Port Klang, Tanjung Pelepas and Kaohsiung — reported a contraction in volumes for 2022.
For the latter, it was part of a wider trend across Taiwan, where the soaring price of raw materials, due to the war in Ukraine, had a significant impact on the consumer electronics supply chain and semiconductor manufacturing — both crucial elements of its box business.
All three of Taiwan's ports saw a reversal in fortunes, but the 'worst hit' title was reserved for its capital, Taipei.
Having realised one of the highest growth figures in 2021, Taipei reported a deficit in 2022 of more than 14% — the biggest percentage fall in volumes of any port making the top 100 cut this time round.
Yet it was not all doom and gloom. There were pockets of growth in the region, and some standout success stories.
Manila, home to Philippines port operator International Container Terminal Services Inc's flagship facility, took the accolade as the fastest-growing Asian port outside China, as liftings jumped 10% to exceed pre-Covid levels.
Elsewhere of note were gains in Thailand's Laem Chabang and the Vietnamese port of Cai Mep — two ports, like others in Southeast Asia, that aspire to become alternative manufacturing hubs to the powerhouse of China.
The shift of trade away from China to countries like Vietnam and Thailand — but also Cambodia, Bangladesh and Indonesia — in Southeast Asia is not a new concept.
However, the upshot of the pandemic — at least for these countries' ports — is that it reinforced the need for supply chain reconfiguration and alternative production hubs.
The business case for such a shift has only been strengthened amid weakening US-Sino relations — a factor that looks set to accelerate the migration of factories to other manufacturing countries in the region.
Although these countries will not threaten China's dominant position in the container port sector any time soon, the billions of dollars currently flooding to the region is testament to the significance of this shift in trade.
It is why Southeast Asian ports — particularly in Vietnam and Thailand — could be the ones to watch in the coming years.
As a collective, Middle Eastern ports achieved the largest volume growth figure by region; its seven ports increased the area's combined total in 2022 by 4.7% over 2021.
Although Middle Eastern economies shouldered global economic headwinds better than most, growth was, overall, largely subdued across its ports.
Yet one performance stole the headlines, contributing the lion's share of additional cargoes for 2022.
In 2018, Abu Dhabi became the regional hub to two of the largest container shipping players, Cosco and Mediterranean Shipping Co, through their respective port arms, Cosco Shipping Ports and Terminal Investment Ltd.
The UAE port has since seen volumes explode, with the carrier pairing drawing in a host of affiliated deepsea services.
In 2022, total volumes amounted to 4.3m teu off the back of a more than 25% uptick in traffic, elevating Abu Dhabi as a top 50 port in the process.
Abu Dhabi's growth trajectory in recent years has been in stark contrast to compatriot Dubai — or Jebel Ali, as it is more commonly known — which is by far and away the region's largest port and home to DP World's flagship operation.
Nevertheless, Dubai did manage to post growth in 2022 — albeit marginal — to continue the positive trend of 2021, following three consecutive years of volume losses.
In addition to Abu Dhabi, the other big mover in the Middle East was the Saudi port of Dammam, making a return to the rankings after a short 12-month hiatus.
Here volumes shot up nearly 15% as steady investment by the Saudi Ports Authority (Mawani) to transform the port into a major logistics hub began to bear fruit.
The impact on containerised trade of Russia's invasion of neighbour Ukraine was, unsurprisingly, most apparent at the major ports in Europe's northern range.
Russian exports from the continent effectively closed overnight upon the advent of sanctions against the Kremlin in response to its military aggression.
This, coupled with sluggish economic growth, as high energy prices sent inflation skyward following the invasion, also did little to serve the demand equation.
Rotterdam, Europe's largest port, and the German ports of Hamburg and Bremerhaven, all largely attributed respective throughput losses of 5.5%, 5.2% and 8.9% to the loss of Russian cargoes and the fallout of the invasion.
The only exception among the continent's top five port facilities was Antwerp, although its growth of more than 12% came via additional volumes from neighbour Zeebrugge upon the unification of the Belgian port authorities. Lloyd's List's 2021 throughput does not include Zeebrugge's contribution.
Similarly, France's largest port, Le Havre, posted an increase in its annual liftings on account of its merger with Rouen and Paris — into a single entity known as Haropa.
Meanwhile, the UK's principal box hub, Felixstowe, on the east Suffolk coast, saw volume gains in 2021 wiped away in 2022, as strikes and sinkholes put paid to progress.
Mirroring the overall trade sentiment in Northern Europe, the Mediterranean's cluster of ports also experienced a 1.1% drop in volumes during the latest 12-month reporting period — one marked by the negative impact of the Ukraine conflict and subsequent high inflation, and the spiralling cost of fuel and raw materials.
Come the end of 2022, only three of the dozen Mediterranean ports taking up the latest ranking slots managed to improve on their respective 2021 teu totals.
True to form, however, it was Morocco's mega hub Tanger Med that proved the best in class, continuing its ascent up the rankings.
Although Tanger Med — around 50 km east of the capital Tangier, on the southern tip of the strategically located Strait of Gibraltar — did not quite achieve the 24% growth figure seen in 2021, volume growth just short of 6% was more than respectable.
The feat was made all the more impressive in the face of a slowdown in global containerised trade.
Throughput of 7.6m teu for 2022 ensures Tanger Med continues to increase the gap on its rivals as the region's busiest box port, having more than tripled traffic in a decade.
Tanger Med was the only port among the Mediterranean's top five to increase its teu total in 2022.
Greece's Piraeus failed to stem the tide of ailing traffic, following a third straight year of throughput declines, while the Spanish trio of Valencia, Algeciras and Barcelona all suffered a similar fate.
Despite posting its own decrease in annual throughput, Türkiye’s Tekirdag became the third port on the shorelines of the Marmara Sea to reach the top 100, following in the footsteps of compatriots Ambarli and Kocaeli.
Container operations are centred at the Asyaport facility — a joint venture between MSC and local owners — which has continued to drum up business in recent years.
Tekirdag props up the rest in the final rankings position, nudging out China's Yangpu by just a few thousand teu.
Following a bumper 2021 result, 2022 was a much more low-key affair for total volume growth across the rankings' North American contingent — yet there was a marked divergence in fortunes for ports lining the Pacific, Atlantic and Gulf coastlines.
Overall volume growth across the region took a considerable dive year on year, rising by a measly 0.6% — a far cry from the impressive 15.5% posted in the preceding 12 months.
Although 2022 started strongly, the unwinding of the pandemic’s shipping boom in the second half of the year and growing recessionary fears, particularly in the US, offset these early gains.
Yet the one plus from slowing demand in the second half of 2022 is that it finally brought an end to the congestion and vessel backlogs in the US, which became synonymous with the pandemic's supply chain meltdown.
What started on the west coast soon became an issue for east and Gulf coast ports as shippers diverted cargoes in search of uncongested terminals.
Nevertheless, it was the US west coast that bore the brunt of boxship backlogs — particularly in San Pedro Bay, outside Los Angeles and Long Beach.
The issue here was further compounded in the run-up to the expiry of dockworkers' contracts in July 2022, when fears of industrial action — which had all too often beset previous negotiations — gave further reason for shippers to divert cargo eastwards.
For Los Angeles and Long Beach, this led to respective falls in traffic of 7.2% and 2.7%, in a theme repeated across the Pacific. Volume growth was therefore reserved for ports on the other side of the continent.
For the largest port on the eastern seaboard, New York/New Jersey, the influx of cargo spurred an almost 6% rise in volumes, in what was a record year for the port, as throughput eclipsed 9m teu for the first time in its history.
In the process, New York/New Jersey overtook Long Beach to lay claim as North America's second-largest port.
The most impressive volume increase, however, came further south in Houston, Texas, which rose more than 15% as one of the main benefactors of cargoes shifting east.
Yet with a tentative labour agreement now in place on the US west coast, expectations are that traffic will start to return to the region's docks. Just how much traffic, though, remains to be seen.
Central and South America
Ports in Central and South America, like North America, experienced mixed fortunes in 2022, with growth fragmented throughout the region.
Colón, located at the Atlantic entrance to the Panama Canal, remains the region's biggest volume contributor, after following up recovery-year throughput in 2021 with further growth in 2022 to go up and above the 5m teu mark.
The Panamanian port has seen volumes climb steadily since the multi-billion-dollar expansion of the Panama Canal, which has brought a host of new services and lines to the port, utilising transhipment opportunities to the wider region.
Demand is such that a fourth terminal is in the offing. The proposed Panama Canal Container Port has long been mooted, but with MSC taking on management and operational duties in 2022, the facility's development is finally moving forward.
With an initial capacity of 2.5m teu and room in play to double this number to 5m teu, Colón's dominant regional position looks safe for the foreseeable future.
Throughput gains were also reported in Santos, Brazil, but the top-performing port in the region was Jamaica's Kingston, which continues to draw volumes as CMA CGM's central Caribbean transhipment hub.
On the flipside, Balboa and Cartagena failed to post growth for 2022, while Ecuador's Guayaquil continued to feel the heat from new domestic rival, Posorja, as it slumped further down the rankings.